A bridge too far…

‘The Human Bridge’ (pictured) is now an illegal act in almost every country that has legislation on stage hypnotism, and with good reason, yet some hypnotists still insist on including it.

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Just to give you the background info, there are very few countries that ban all forms hypnosis, even hypnotherapy, outright. These countries (sic) include Israel and the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan. Even China allows hypnotherapy and hypnosis shows! In certain parts of the United States, hypnosis, even hypnotherapy, carried out by qualified and experienced psychologists, is taboo, but that is mainly because the dominant culture is one of Bible-thumping right wing Christianity, where stage hypnosis is practised in churches every Sunday.

But forget all that for a moment and let’s concentrate on the modern day stage hypnotism show (the purpose of this article) and try to learn from past mistakes. Let’s get the cards on the table and the honesty gene into the open…

In the 1980’s (before I calmed down, started to be sensible and acted like an adult) I made my name, and my living, doing stage hypnosis shows. Playing to audiences of two thousand plus on my travels (in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, America) was to me, a normal annual cycle. I enjoyed the travelling, I loved seeing new places, I enjoyed the life, and, if I’m honest, I also liked the applause. So now, it might seem a trifle hypocritical to poke holes in stage hypnosis – and especially when it comes to stunts like the one pictured.

I admit that I did ‘the human bridge’ stunt, sometimes called ‘catalepsy,’ or at least a version of it, as a finale to my own hypnosis show – the stunt was the ultimate proof that hypnosis was real – that anything was possible with the power of hypnosis. I did it at the end of [almost] every show up until 1989 – that’s 180 shows a year, over nine years and, even allowing for variations, that means I did the stunt over a thousand times. And then one day, I came unstuck. That was in a small theatre in Nottingham when I did the trick to rapturous applause. After the performance I found out that my star subject had, six months previously, undergone surgery for a broken back. Sure, I had taken all the traditional precautions and asked all the correct questions… “have you ever had a any problems with your back?” “No” answered the unsuspecting subject. “Are you fit – I mean, do you do any sports?” “Running” replied the subject – and so, with all the boxes well and truly ticked, I proceeded to do the stunt, satisfied that I had covered every base. Not so… I had, due to my inexperience and lack of knowledge, neglected to take into account the fact that under hypnosis, a subject will nearly always make an unconscious decision to ‘comply’ with the demands of the unusual situation – especially if unaware of what is about to happen. Worse, when it becomes clear what is expected, subjects are often powerless to raise any objections. And before the subject knows what’s going on, he/she follows the natural course and complies, no matter what the possible consequences.

The ‘human bridge’ stunt may look impressive – I admit that visually, it’s a great convincer – which is probably why it has survived for more than one hundred years! When presented to an audience, the majority of the spectator’s assume (even at an unconscious level) the stunt is absolutely safe. After all, if it wasn’t safe there would be a law against it, wouldn’t there? At the very least, surely the guy in charge, the one with the microphone and the smart suit, the one who’s name is on all the posters, must know what he’s doing… doesn’t he?

Actually, he might not. But how would you know? Therein lies the illusion – and illusion it is, no mistake. Any reasonably strong adult can do this stunt without being hypnotised at all, so in reality, it proves nothing, and yet it has been part and parcel of the stage hypnotist’s stock-in-trade, dating back to the late 19th century. Like many of the ‘traditional’ gags in stage hypnosis (think chickens) it refuses to ‘lay’ down and die (pardon the pun.)

So what’s the trick? The modus operandi at first appears relatively simple – one must first of all choose a subject (by tradition, male) that looks fit and healthy – and nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand it will all pan out as planned – and the visual impact will be greeted with tumultuous applause. But I know some hypnotists who privately admit they don’t like the stunt and only rarely pull it out of the bag if they really need to – and then only if absolutely necessary – at the end of a weak and unconvincing show – and only if they have a point to prove, or are desperate to be invited back!

Frankly, I think I was fortunate that the stunt never actually went pear-shaped on my stage, but with hindsight, and with the benefit of updated knowledge and experience, I concede I was playing with fire – which is why I am now writing this article! It was without doubt the revelation at the end of the Nottingham show that changed my mind about the wisdom of including the stunt in the show. In fact it gave me a mighty scare, and that was enough to make me think again.

By 1996, after the UK Home Office held its much publicised enquiry into stage hypnosis, I had long abandoned ‘the human bridge’ routine and had not done it for several years. In retrospect, my show was better without it. Not only had I become unsure of the safely element, but I no longer felt it was appropriate to use it in a show that was essentially based on comedy, rather than incredulity. Some of my more experienced stage hypnotist colleagues were also thinking twice about whether or not they should continue using it in the light of accumulated knowledge – and the abandonment of 19th century thought!

In fairness, there was already an ‘in house’ school of thought busy examining several aspects of the safety of stage hypnosis before  the UK’s Federation of Ethical Stage Hypnotists (FESH) came into being. It was something that had been discussed at length at FESH meetings, together with on-stage age regression (not to be confused with on-stage play acting) and demonstrations of anaesthesia and analgesia – all proscribed now in Britain, and with good reason. And so the UK Home Office, having heard evidence from stage hypnotists and representatives from The Royal College of Psychiatry, officially banned demonstrations of ‘catalepsy,’ also known as ‘the human bridge.’  By definition and after many meetings, all agreed (even the old school stage hypnotists) that ‘the human bridge’ was insanely dangerous, and that it could possibly lead to serious injury and life-long back problems if it were to go wrong.

This was no arbitrary decision – now all the data had been gathered, there was a fairly substantial body of evidence against its use and it was clear that the consensus of opinion, even among the UK stage hypnosis community in the late 1980’s/1990’s (with only one exception, and he was an idiot) had turned against its use.

And yet some stage hypnotists (outside the UK) still insist on including it their acts. Despite my general aversion, I have on occasion met several stage hypnotists. I have even (although not for many years) made a herculean effort to sit (bored to the point of distraction) through their performances. It is common knowledge that I consider the majority of stage hypnotists to be woefully incompetent. I have witnessed ineptitude and negligence on a staggering scale. I have even witnessed near disasters – as for instance during a performance at the Garrick Theatre in Altrincham (Manchester) in 1993 where an amateur hypnotist told his remaining two subjects that when the music began, they would be riding a horse – all right as far as it goes – it’s a common stage hypnosis routine after all dating back more than 100 years – but the mistake was that the hypnotist forgot to mention to the subjects that they would be stuck to their chair or have their feet stuck to the floor – an obvious and well-know precaution. The result was that they raced ahead unchecked, crashing into scenery and heading toward the orchestra pit. OK, there were only two subjects responding to the suggestions that night and the ‘hypnotist’ concerned recovered quickly enough to prevent a disaster. But what if there had been ten people on the stage? How could he have recovered from that?

Today’s stage performers often seek refuge behind the corporate denial of the stage hypnosis fraternity (a laughable and mythical concept) but the human bridge is something that no intelligent stage hypnotist would admit to doing today – acceptable perhaps in the eighties, but a no-no in the nineties! In quiet corners, the more experienced hypnotists secretly acknowledge the human bridge is now part of the dark side. For the good of the profession, however, they are understandably unwilling to wash their dirty linen in public. It seems I am the exception to the rule.

I believe stage hypnosis, if handled correctly, is safe – even harmless. But I am also a realist, and I can see a hundred potential problems before they’ve even happened. The dangers of stage hypnosis are not obvious to an audience who, understandably, put their trust and faith in the hypnotist; most people happily believe that if stage hypnosis wasn’t entirely safe, it wouldn’t be allowed. Those who do not trust the hypnotist don’t buy tickets for his show anyway, but the gasps of amazement can quickly turn to cries of horror when (as I witnessed at a hypnosis stage show in the mid 1980’s) during the ‘human bridge’ stunt one of the chairs broke under the weight and the whole thing ended in a very untidy jumble of bodies on the floor. Ironically, on this occasion, the only injury was to the hypnotist himself.

Done properly, the stunt is a carefully stage-managed illusion, produced for maximum effect – done right, the chairs are set at an oblique angle so that from the front, from the audience’s perspective, it appears that one chair is under the neck of the subject and the other is under his ankles . In reality, as with any good illusion, the chairs are carefully positioned diagonally so that they lie under the centre of gravity of the subject, one chair supporting the mid torso and the other supporting the whole of the lower legs.

Even without hypnosis, the trick can be done for real by anyone who is reasonably fit and healthy, with a modicum of strength. Far from being a trial of superhuman strength, it is actually more of a balancing act, owing its success to illusion and misdirection. You would be amazed at the number of stage hypnotists who do not understand the underlying principles of the illusion. The majority of stage hypnotists – and this is an astonishing and depressing truth – are, in their ignorance, just as amazed as the audience! Then, and this is the dangerous bit – they copy it on their first outing – with no understanding of the mechanics of the trick!

How can a stage hypnotist be absolutely certain his star performer won’t experience problems after an unusual amount of stress has been placed upon his body? And what about how the subject might feel the next morning, which is when he is most likely to experience side effects such as stiffness (again, pardon the pun)? A major problem with stage hypnotists is that they often perform routines without the slightest understanding of the possible consequences, or are blissfully ignorant of the background psychology, or consider themselves at liberty to push their subjects to the limit.

When a hypnotist’s training comprises of a couple of hours chatting with the guy he met in a bar in Benidorm over a few drinks (astonishingly, this is often the case!) or garnering often inaccurate information from the Internet, this is inevitably going to be a recipe for disaster. Sooner or later the hypnotist is going to find himself in a very sticky predicament as did I!

I went to a show in a pub in Manchester in the late 1980’s to see an hypnosis act which had descended into farce before it had begun. Faced with a drunk and rowdy audience, the hypnotist tried to get order and attention by introducing ‘the human bridge’ at an early stage. The result was, the subject collapsed onto the floor, the girl sitting on him sprawled on top of him, all to the howling laughter (for all the wrong reasons) of the crowd. He was laughed off the stage, but, talking to him after the event, he still blamed the audience. His mistake, borne out of inexperience and lack of knowledge, was to have been tempted to do a hypnosis show in such a place and with such an audience in the first place! He knew who I was and took the opportunity to try to pick my brains. Well, that wasn’t going to happen! One of the skills of the stage hypnotist is to choose one’s venue, and therefore one’s audience, with care!

In the UK, the only real protection (for the public and the hypnotist!) comes from the Model Conditions published by the Home Office and attached to the 1952 Hypnotism Act. These conditions are an easy to understand four page list of do’s and don’ts, musts and must nots, to which one must apply one’s common sense. Among the must nots is the prohibition of catalepsy, or ‘the human bridge.’

There is also a prohibition against hypnotising those under the age of eighteen (with occasional exemptions) for the purpose of entertainment, and with good reason. This rule does not apply to demonstrations of hypnosis where the audience is made up of medical practitioners, or (for example) psychologists or psychology students. In those circumstances, the demonstration of hypnosis is for educational purposes, to explain to students the theory and practice of hypnosis. Educational demonstrations of hypnosis, although exempt from the Home Office rules, are still carried out under strictly controlled conditions (always supervised) in the controlled environment of the lecture hall. These demonstrations, by definition, are obviously completely different from a comedy show in a pub! Demonstrations of hypnosis for educational or research purposes clearly would not include the sort of stunts one would see in a ‘pub’ hypnosis show.

For entertainment purposes, the prohibition of hypnotising volunteers under the age of eighteen is eminently sensible. Youngsters may not always have the maturity to cope with the emotional roller-coaster ride of the stage hypnosis show, where volunteers are  expected to perform one routine after another in rapid succession. The younger the subject, the less likely they will be able to deal with what happens.

This is particularly worrying where the element of social compliance is paramount (or in cases where the hypnotist relies solely on the group dynamics) or in circumstances where youngsters may feel isolated – which they most certainly will if they find themselves being asked to perform tasks on their own, deprived of the comfort and security of their own peer group. The fact is, hypnotising young kids for the entertainment of adults is… unsavoury – I think that’s the right word. And one of these days, there will be tears, followed by a confrontation with an angry parent and a letter from an even angrier attorney, who, I can assure you, will not see the joke. I hereby make myself available as an expert witness, should you wish to sue!

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An idiot abroad! – an amateur stage hypnotist at work. A couple of those kids look very young.

To find out more about the potential dangers of Stage Hypnosis, read All in the Mind – Hypnosis, Suggestion and the New Mesmerists, available from this website.  

Copyright Andrew Newton 2014. All rights reserved.